This morning’s Observer column.
It was a clear, windless night. All around was a wonderful panorama crowned by the glorious dome of St Paul’s in the distance. Then I started to look at the tall, glass-walled office blocks in my immediate vicinity. Although it was after 10pm, the lights were on in every building, enabling me to see into hundreds of offices. These offices varied in size and decor, but they all had one thing in common. Somewhere in every one of them was a desk on – or under – which stood a PC.
What then came to mind was the memory of a tousle-haired young entrepreneur named Bill Gates, who once articulated a vision of “a computer on every desk, each one running Microsoft software”. What I was looking at that December night was the realisation of that vision. Every one of the machines I could see was running Microsoft software: a software monoculture, if you like.
Microsoft’s dominance was a testimony to the power of network effects and of technological lock-in. It led to a world in which nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft products and no software innovation gained traction unless it was designed to run under Windows.
For a time, Microsoft was the winner that took all. It would be churlish to pretend that this was all bad news, because the de facto standardisation that Microsoft brought to personal computer technology enabled the vast expansion of the PC industry and accelerated the adoption of computers in offices and homes.
But accompanying these substantial benefits there were some significant downsides…